Copper serving dish with cioppino
It's crab season and that means it's time to make cioppino! This year I went to the Oregon coast to visit friends and sample the local seafood and wine.

While the pot simmered we started talking about the origin of cioppino.  I was under the impression that the soup had its origins in San Francisco and was named by the Italian fishermen who settled in North Beach. Someone else thought Portuguese fishermen came up with the recipe.  After doing a little research I learned that both cultures have a claim to this tasty stuff. In fact, so does any other fisherman who ended up on the wharf in San Francisco! Whatever the nationality of the fisherman, the story goes that they used to make the soup on the boat. Since there was no refrigeration, canned tomatoes and whatever fresh vegetables they had on hand were the base for this soup -- and that's what I love about it. You can always mix and match the fresh seafood depending on your taste, budget or availability. As long as the tomatoes, garlic, wine and spices are available, you can make cioppino! 

I guess the conversation about the origin of cioppino will go on as long as there are food bloggers keeping it alive. As for me, I like the way the folks at foodtimeline.org summed it up, American cioppino is a story of immigration patterns, ethnic heritage, and local adaptation. So, from the sunny Oregon coast, here's my local adaptation.
Time: 2 hours
Yield: Serves 6
Level: Average

6 garlic cloves, minced
2 medium onions, chopped
1 bay leaf
2 tsp dried oregano, crumbled
1 tsp dried hot red pepper flakes
1 1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
2 tsp Old Bay seasoning
1/4 cup olive oil
3 ribs of celery, cut in 1/2 inch sections
1 cup tomato sauce (or a small can of tomato paste)
1 1/2 cups red wine
1 can diced tomatoes (32oz),  with juice
1 1/2 cup clam juice
1 1/2 cup chicken broth
1 lb small hard-shelled clams
1 cooked crab (1 1/2- 2lbs) - legs only
1 1/2 lb large shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 lb firm white fish (red snapper or halibut), no bones
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley or cilantro

Before you start: Unless I'm planning to spend all day in the kitchen, I let the fishmonger do some of the work for me. For example, I buy a cooked crab and have them clean it. I'll use the legs in the cioppino and save the meat from the body for another time (crab omlette, anyone?).
I also buy peeled and deveined shrimp when time is tight. They cost more so, if you have the time and want to get more shrimp for your dollar, I suggest doing that job yourself. It's an easy task but if you don't know how, you can learn here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IOTMQ2oXdLE
Finally, I prefer to have the fish deboned by the pros. Fish bones are so small and flexible that it's easy to miss one. Someone who handles fish everyday will know what to look for and get rid of all of them. Let's face it, swallowing a fish bone is no way to end a dinner party!

There is still some at-home seafood prep to do. Start with that, so it will be ready when you are.
Clams: In case you didn't know, the clams are alive (sorry to break it to you). You will want to give them a chance to filter any grit or sand out of their systems before you cook them. You do this by placing them in a deep bowl and covering them with cool water. You can add cornmeal to the water but, for small clams, it's not usually necessary. Set aside for 20-30 minutes. Longer than that and you will want to refrigerate them. 
Crab: Assuming you bought a whole, cooked, crab, remove the legs. Wash the outer shell and set aside. Reserve the body and it's meat for another time.
Shrimp: Shell and devein the shrimp (if you didn't purchase them that way). Rinse and refrigerate until you're ready to cook them.
Fish: Gently run your hands down both sides of the fish to check, one last time, for bones.

cooking onions, garlic and celery in olive oil. This starts the cioppino baseHeat oil in a large stock pot over a medium heat. Add onions and garlic, cook until the onions are slightly transparent (don't let the garlic get brown) then add celery, bay leaf, oregano and 1/2 cup of the wine. Cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.  The onions and celery should be softened. Add diced tomatoes (and the their juice), tomato sauce (or paste), broth, clam juice, salt, pepper and the remainder of the wine. Bring to a boil for approximately 5 minutes, letting the mixture reduce by 1/3. Cover and simmer for approximately 30 minutes.
Taste the broth and make any flavor adjustments.
In the process of adding the seafood just before serving the cioppino
It's time to add the seafood, so be prepared to eat within 20 minutes.
Before you drain the clams make sure the shells are clean. You can scrub them if necessary (and it's often necessary) and rinse them twice in clear water. Add the clams to the soup, cover and simmer 5 minutes. Remove opened clams to a bowl (so they don't overcook) and cover the pot again. For the next 5 minutes continue checking for open clams and removing them from the pot. Discard unopened clams. They've had 10 minutes to open up, if they haven't by now, they won't.
Table setting wth cioppino, red wine and salad
Season the fish with Old Bay seasoning and add to the pot.
Add the shrimp and the cooked crab. Cover and cook for about 5 minutes. The shrimp is becoming opaque but will continue to cook as long as it's in the hot soup.
Remove the bay leaf. Add the clams that you set aside and cilantro (or parsley) and stir gently. Too much activity in the pot will break the fish apart, so don't worry too much about mixing things up.

Since cioppino is a casual meal, I usually ladle it directly from the pot into bowls. However, if you want to make a statement, a tureen of cioppino is pretty impressive on the table -- just be prepared for the mess.

Serve this hot with crusty sourdough bread, a green salad and red wine.

In keeping with the theme, we chose wine from the Pacific Northwest and they were both great. From Oregon we had Eola Hills Wine Cellars, 2011 Pinot Noir and, from Washington, Chateau Ste Michelle, 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon


  1. I hope you get the chance to try it, Lesley. If you do, let me know how it goes.